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Denverite bringing comfort to children in Haiti

Haiti, January 25, 2010

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Colleen O'Connor

The Denver Post
January, 2010

Children who survived the Haiti earthquake already are asking difficult questions.

Why did my parents die?

Why is my neighbor fine, but I lost my house and everything in it?

Why did my friend die?

Adults, themselves traumatized and struggling to find food and water, usually lack the right words.

"When people are in complete shock, even if they think they know the right thing to say, they often freeze," said Griffen Samples, a Denver resident who is to fly to Haiti on Sunday with Mercy Corps to launch Comfort for Kids, a post-trauma program for children.

"They say, 'We don't want to hurt the children. They've been exposed to so much already,' " Samples said.

Samples, a technical adviser to Mercy Corps, helped develop Comfort for Kids after 9/11 to help children's emotional recovery after that tragedy.

Since then, Comfort for Kids has been used to help children in five other post-disaster situations: hurricanes in New Orleans and Guatemala; earthquakes in China and Peru; and as part of the response to war in the Gaza Strip.

Traumatized children who don't receive treatment, Samples said, can develop lifelong problems, including depression, aggression, regressive or anti-social behaviors, and difficulties in school.

"We help parents, teenagers and community folks to know how to effectively support traumatized children," Samples said.

The trauma-training workshops for adults, conducted in French and Creole, include instruction for using a workbook, written Creole, that is designed to help children tell the story of the disaster in a safe environment.

Children also receive "comfort kits" with soothing items such as blankets, stuffed animals and books, depending on a child's age.

In Haiti, Samples expects to train about 1,000 people to use the program. Most will be parents or teenagers with day-care responsibilities. Samples expects only about 5 percent of them to already be local mental- health providers, because there are so few of them in Haiti.

They'll learn to deal with strange behaviors, such as kids standing up and then making themselves fall down.

"They're imitating the earthquake, trying to make sense of it," Samples said. "After 9/11, kids would build tall towers of blocks and pull them down. It made the adults crazy."

But the activity helped the children process the trauma.

"We try to help adults remember this is not so different from what they do," Samples said. "Like adults who have a bad breakup and tell the story forever, they're just trying to make sense of it. But kids act things out, not talk things out."

Adults also will get some help for their own emotional difficulties.

"We'll ask them how they're doing and what coping skills they are using," she said.

"Sometimes it's too much alcohol or smoking, not enough sleep, lots of anger and arguments. Some are more sexually promiscuous, or active, just for comfort. We talk about healthy skills, and how to cope even in a crazy place in such transition."

On the first trip, Samples will lay the groundwork for the training, which will take place when she returns in February.

"We want to empower adults to calm the kids and help them find the 'new normal.' Then, the kids will begin to cling less, cry less and get back on their feet.

"When parents aren't worrying about the kids so much, they can think, 'OK, what are we going to do about taking care of our daily reality?' "